Why opinion and subjectivism need to be encouraged in journalism

Eric sent me a link to this editorial in the NYTimes.



Yo, Ayatollahs!

By MAUREEN DOWD



Which has the line in it

the vice police are back arresting women in Afghanistan


which was news to me.



I considered why this was something I didn't see more coverage on so I decided to corroborate the story and found a detailed account of it here



A YEAR LATER, AFGHAN WOMEN STILL TERRORIZED



BY ZANA COURSEN-NEFF and JOHN SIFTON



So I read this piece on the bullshit that's starting to go on again in Afghanistan and I was reminded that, well they pretty much don't have anything to do in that country but eat dirt, and that .. gee it seems like this would have been, oh I don't know, good news to have seen 9 months ago when this first started coming to light. So how come it wasn't given more attention by the media?



This reminded me of a Jefferson quote I remembered from the Daily Show, which Laura and I successfully tracked down yesterday.



Stewart: Isn't it the media's responsibility in wartime ...



Colbert: That's my point, Jon! The media has no responsibility in wartime. The government's on top of it. The media can sit this one out.



Stewart: And do what?



Colbert: Everything it's always wanted to do but had no time for: travel, see the world, write that novel. I know the media has always wanted to try yoga. This is a great time to take it up. It's very stressful out there -- huge war going on. Jon, hear me out, it was Thomas Jefferson who said, "Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach."



Stewart: Stephen, Stalin said that. That was Stalin. Jefferson said he'd rather have a free press and no government than a government and no free press.



Colbert: Well, what do you expect from a slave-banging, Hitler-loving queer?



...


In the same article Laura Miller goes on to say..

a good humorist doesn't need to grandstand and sometimes barely needs to editorialize at all.





Which is where one of my deep beliefs starts to creep back in. When a humorist doesn't editorize at all, which sometimes happens on the Daily Show, isn't that journalism? And isn't it the kind of opinion driven journalism that empowers people to discuss and consider ideas rather than people and events? Isn't that the ultimate purpose of the basic human right of freedom of the press that our constitution empowers.



So just for grins, lets go way back to the exact Thomas Jefferson quote.



Which is found on this page Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government 51. Freedom of the Press :

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." -- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57




So all of this to explain the thought that struck me about the exact Thomas Jefferson quote when I read it. The first thought in the quote:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right;


is especially important in my view.



It speaks to how mass market media is not only ineffective but in my view bad for government in general.



The mass market media comodifies opinion to the point that the press is no longer free in Jefferson's view because the press is not capable of expressing an opinion. This at a time where most every man is receiving media and capable of absorbing it.



So people rail against the media all the time. But the idea that the media is liberal or conservative is not really the problem. The media is the reflection of whatever public opinion is thought to prefer at the time. To extend the analogy this reflection is reflected by the values of the editorial voice of each outlet. If you consider all outlets as the whole of the free press then you should in theory get a fairly accurate picture of public opinion.



But do we really get opinions, dissent and a dialogue of ideas that enlightens and enriches ourselves and our government? I certainly haven't seen it in the last 15 years at least. We all know that the mass media has the power to create public opinion. Further, when this occurs mass media not only creates public opinion but actively discourages unpopular opinion. This has became common practice because, during the dawn of the media age, the newspaper barons needed to kill or bury unpopular stories because they were 'bad for circulation'. While many of the newspapers reformed themselves the genie got out of the bottle and the financial benefit of peddling news that supports the popular view was so great that it's now the norm, rather than the exception. We're seeing it in the extreme right now because we're 'at war'.



The sad effect of all this is that the media now regularly kill or bury real news stories that conflict with popular opinion and so fail to inform the dialog of the people regarding all the consequences of the actions of government. This has the intellectually chilling effect of not enabling us as individuals to fully form our own opinions.



This is why I feel that we so hunger for contradictory news and even seek it out in unlikely places like humor and other outlets that are allowed to have 'opinions'. In fact by being a fake news show that will many times not editorialize on pieces, The Daily Show wiht Jon Stewart succeeds exactly where I believe Jefferson envisioned the press delivering the most value to the people and therefor to the government.



I don't know if we'll see it my lifetime but I am firmly convinced that the way the media works in our time will be seen as one of the most corruptive forces on the human condition. Not because it's liberal or conservative, but because the media supports the idea that newsworthiness and popularity of opinion are somehow not only related to each other (which is completely ridiculous) but that popularity of opinion trumps newsworthiness because it's easier.



It may be easy to digest, easy to measure and easy to make money off of, but is it news? I think that it's fairly obvious that Women getting abused in Afghanistan is news, sure it's harder to report but so what. Are we not worthy of thinking about that kind of an idea? Didn't President Bush himself say that it would be hard to win the war on Terrorism? Isn't this an example of how hard it really will be?



The press should be reporting news that contradicts popular opinion so that we can test, temper and harden our convictions and values. If the press will not report news regardless of popular opinion then we turn our government into a hall of mirrors and we are no longer governing ourselves but are in fact governed without representation. That's what Jefferson is telling us. I am convinced that's what history will prove is occurring.

Larry Cummings

I work with product development teams, helping find balance between people and machines to get valuable things done. I'm married and have one child. I completely love sweeping generalizations.

Phoenix, AZ http://larry.org/

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